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How far-right views became the new edgy aesthetic

From Kanye West to the Red Scare, the pipeline between progressive left to nu-right is becoming bigger – but it’s more than just Trump hats and tradwives

Earlier this month, Kanye West officially declared his allegiance to alt-right pundits and conspiracy nuts when he sent a White Lives Matter t-shirt down the runway at Paris Fashion Week. An artist already known for his erratic tweetstorms, Ye’s desire to provoke his fans is nothing new. But the show and its subsequent fallout – plus his vocal antisemitism – marked a new chapter in the artist’s radicalisation. As fashion editors and celebrities stormed out and wrote fiercely worded opinion pieces, alt-right circles lauded him as a warrior of “cancel culture” gone awry.

Dial back to pre-2020 and perhaps Kanye’s behaviour could be brushed off as your standard edgelord stunt – he has a track record of wearing MAGA hats and toying with Confederate imagery. But after years of the pandemic, as we become increasingly online and the IRL world plunges further into disarray, it no longer feels like harmless trolling. What Kanye is suggesting is that political beliefs, like fashion trends, are an aesthetic to be tried on and taken off with no regard for real-world consequences. (Some have of course argued the opposite, with his ties to Candace Owens suggesting a more deliberate political strategy).

Kanye-isms aside, this sort of anything-goes behaviour isn’t just limited to mainstream provocateurs trying to stay relevant. Neither is it 4chan users or anonymous alt-right Twitter accounts with Ancient Greek avatars. Rather it’s emblematic of a wider trend that’s taken over the internet and is now permeating progressive spaces. This is particularly true for a certain breed of Extremely Online artists and tastemakers, the sort who you’d assume is responsible for pushing culture forward, but who’ve become so black-pilled that they’ve traded in progressive politics for a doomer-ish nihilism that embraces the System via Trump hats, tradwifery and Big Tech payouts. 

At the centre of this shift is Dimes Square, the memeable New York micro-neighbourhood that has become synonymous with the post-liberal, anti-woke political movement. As countless thinkpieces suggest, it’s the place where downtown’s so-called cool kids gather to swap dreams of becoming doting housewives, cosplay as trad-caths, make offhand jokes about the migrant crisis, and use words like “retarded” and “gay” as a détournement away from the safety-pin politics that encompasses the liberal left. Whether it’s an elaborate LARP or not, some of these e-girls and edgelords are also getting involved with far-right thinkers and pundits. Perhaps this could be interpreted as an AltWoke way of exploiting corporate resources, accelerating through capitalism to pick apart structural power. But paired with the scene’s conservative attitudes, it’s beginning to feel more like a shadowy think tank.

In September, the second official congregation of the Urbit Foundation took place in New York. Founded by Curtis Yarvin, the far-right leader of neoreactionary politics, and backed by billionaire venture capitalist and pro-Trump political donor Peter Thiel, Urbit is essentially a decentralised, peer-to-peer network and operating system, loosely associated with Web3. It claims to offer an alternative to the World Wide Web, though its current state is an extremely rudimentary early 90s chatroom. Given its corporate context and Big Tech backing, outsiders to the industry would assume Urbit’s patrons to consist mostly of computer freaks and gamers. But the organisation has attracted New York’s downtown scene. Honor Levy and Walter Pearce, co-hosts of the Wet Brain podcast, hosted an event at Urbit, as did No Agency, a trendy modelling agency based in Chinatown that represents Red Scare’s Dasha Nekrasova. As James Duesterberg, who wrote one of the most comprehensive dives into Urbit, writes: “a handful of well-connected New York publicists, magazine editors, art advisers, modelling agents and socialites [are] on its payroll.”

What makes a group of twentysomething creatives and socialites want to engage in business with the world’s most shadowy far-right figures is a tricky case to unpack. New York’s downtown is at the epicentre of the so-called ‘internet scene’, which emerged out of the pandemic and spilt out across an endless stream of Adderall-fuelled and schizoid content: Substacks, podcasts and anonymous Instagram accounts. This also prompted an influx of nu-right podcasts, which are long, self-referential and intentionally opaque, stretched across hours of worm-brained audio and rambling text blocks that are nearly impossible to distil into any meaningful chunks of information. They are often led by the sort of terminally online scenesters who listen to Red Scare and wear Praying t-shirts with mimetic slogans like ‘God’s favourite’ or ‘Flop Era’. A similar strain of ironic humour can be spotted across Urbit. An Instagram account, shirts_of_assembly, documents the patrons’ fashion, which includes “I MET MY WIFE AT URBIT ASSEMBLY” and “URBIT MAXIMALIST”.

​​With no clear avenues for political potential on the horizon, and no big world event to reignite the progressive agenda, online political movements like Theorygram have lost their momentum. As left-wing progressive spaces dissolve into memey entertainment, there’s an overwhelming feeling that the system is broken – in short, we’ve lost our sense of urgency. Young people who voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016 were forced to live through the fever dream of Trump, and then had to witness the chaos of the pandemic and the demise of liberalism.  With Biden and capitalism offering no viable left-wing alternative to the current political system, they’ve decided that politics is for Them, not Us, and have fallen through the nihilism pipeline, down into the dissident fringes where the only thing left to do is bask in the chaos. Like the living embodiment of the Joker meme, they shitpost and troll and LARP as reactionaries and traditionalists, raising an eyebrow at any libs who object as if to say: why so serious?

This is particularly true when life already feels like one big meme. World leaders communicate via Simpsons stills and even the most tragic global events can be distilled into bytes of content to be shared and eventually lost to the eternal scroll. This lack of permanence, paired with the feelings of triviality instilled by such means of communication, has helped shape the idea that everything is content. Online identities are roles to be performed; ideas are memed, remixed and spread to oblivion. As technology gets more advanced, algorithms direct our interests and our lives feel more out of our control than ever.

We live in a cyberculture where the social and capital are inseparable, and where everything is a commodity – especially your identity. Everything is filtered through social media, which is funded by tech billionaires with their own agendas. You only need to look at Instagram’s strict censorship rules or shadowbanning to understand that the algorithm, which undeniably shapes our behaviour, pushes an ideological evolution that feeds into the motives of these corporations.

In this current moment of cultural stasis, capitalising on the internet’s disruptive power can feel liberating, especially when technology continues to advance and we find ourselves restlessly churning out past eras and trends to fill in the gaps. Like schizoposting, which adopts an unfiltered approach to sharing information via unintelligible text walls, there’s a hedonistic desire to push content to its very extremes – and express a wider discontent towards the global order.

But isn’t this exactly the future Big Tech wants? While nihilism certainly provides an easy out, it doesn’t tackle the actual problem at hand – and there are much better ways of showing your discontent than rude comments and Hail Marys. Some have suggested that we’re heading towards a neo-feudal society where a very few powerful elites control all of the resources and capital to rent out as memberships to the public – last week Kanye announced plans to build a mini city called the Yecosystem. Yarvin wants to accelerate the most dystopian aspects of our neoliberal present, do away with democracy and make figures like Elon Musk our actual overlords. So, while we busy ourselves with trolls and tricksters, or tap out of caring completely, tech billionaires are getting exactly what they want – and leading us further down an ever-darkening path.